Interview with Grayson Everett on education in North Alabama

 

After I published my article on AL.com regarding teacher turnover in Huntsville City Schools, I was invited on the James Lomax Show by Grayson Everett, who was guest hosting that week, and appeared along with Clay Martinson, a good friend of mine. This is the audio from that show; more is available on WVNN.com. Lomax graphic

Full investigation on teacher turnover in Huntsville City Schools

Recently, I published this article on AL.com, concerning high rates of turnover among Huntsville’s teachers. The reaction has been unbelievable, with a variety of news organizations looking into the issues more deeply than ever before. However, this article was cut down from my original investigation for length. The original is printed here:

Over the winter break, seven teachers at Huntsville High School resigned or retired, on top of the nineteen who left over the summer. Since 2009, resignations of tenured teachers in the Huntsville City Schools system have risen 225%, as suggested by a graph provided by Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski in an August 2015 presentation entitled “Talent Management Update.” According to a report published by the Alabama School Connection, 20% of teachers in Huntsville City Schools have a year or less experience, putting it among the five worst districts in the state. Pat Miller, the Huntsville City Chapter President of the Alabama Education Association, a professional organization that represents teachers, calls this increase “unprecedented,” calling attention to the number of teachers leaving midyear.

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I arrived at my 225% figure by counting the pixels on the yellow bars, and comparing the values. I asked Huntsville City Schools to confirm this number, but they neither confirmed nor denied this statistic. However, it reflects personnel records provided by the Alabama Education Association.

Huntsville City Schools Chief of Staff Johnny Giles said, “Reasons for individuals resigning are very personal in nature.” In any case, resignations of tenured teachers remain between one and four percent of the population per year in data available since 2009.

Historical data of teacher resignations and retirements from Huntsville High School are not available, so it is impossible to say how unusual these recent numbers are; however, students are noticing the change. Senior Edward Rosler said, “It just seems like more teachers are leaving,” noting recent churnings in the science department. Rosler’s geology teacher, Skot Holcombe, left mid-year, citing a realization that “teaching was not [his] passion,” while AP Physics teacher Athanasia Lianos and AP Biology teacher Elizabeth Simmons retired midyear.

When asked if teachers are leaving more often now than when he was a freshman, Huntsville High Senior Class President Ryan McGill said, “Yes, most definitely, especially the teachers that have been here the longest.” Scott Sharp, the former head football and softball coach as well as the AP Calculus teacher, resigned in June after eighteen years of teaching.

Sharp’s resignation in particular has led to criticism of district policy. A longstanding Huntsville City Schools rule allowed the children of teachers to attend school where they taught, regardless of the school for which the child was zoned. This changed recently in an effort to give all children in the school system the same access to the same schools throughout the district; as a result, children of teachers now must attend their normal neighborhood school. When asked about why he left, Sharp cited this new rule; his children are zoned for Buckhorn High School in the Madison County Schools system, about thirty minutes from Huntsville High. Sharp said, “With my wife’s health issues, I had an opportunity to teach where my children attend school, and also be closer to home.”

Pat Miller said of Sharp, “If we had an opportunity to keep a teacher of his caliber in the district, we should have. I hope we didn’t lose him over a policy.” Miller criticized the district’s gruffness in cases similar to Sharp’s, citing unreturned phone calls and emails; however, he was not active in this particular case. “We understand that the district has to make policies, and not all teacher requests can be granted,” Miller said, later qualifying: “If you can’t work out a deal, at least make the teacher feel valued.”

Adam Keller, a former teacher at Grissom and Johnson High Schools who now works full time for the AEA as Uniserv Director for District Two, where he represents Huntsville City Schools and Alabama A&M, said, “To the district, teachers are just numbers on a spreadsheet. And, quite frankly, so are the students.” The AEA feels that Huntsville City Schools has become less transparent and accessible, more bureaucratic and authoritarian, culminating in a system that is “unwilling to meet teacher’s requests.” Miller and Keller also cited the case of an award-winning elementary school teacher who left the district for similar reasons as Sharp, but for privacy reasons did not disclose her name.

Communication Problems

Another issue that has been cited by teachers is a sense of a negative school culture. Nicole Schwartz, the longtime newspaper sponsor who moved to Bob Jones High School in Madison City Schools before this year started, cited a “very positive environment for students and teachers” at Bob Jones as a reason behind her move. She also cited lower stress levels; in Madison City, she teaches 85 kids at a time instead of 175, receives a higher salary, and no longer has to handle the increased workload at Huntsville City Schools (her class workload was to increase to six per day from five).

Many teachers also feel that they are not being listened to. On the workplace review site Glassdoor.com, where Huntsville City Schools has a dismal 2.1/5 rating, one teacher said, “Administrators are out-of-touch and unsupportive. Communication is severely lacking. Teachers feel devalued and patronized…Teachers here are so passionate about their students. We try to advocate for what’s best for them, but no one is listening.” By comparison, Newark City Schools and Chicago City Schools, both of which have come under fire recently, have 3.0/5 and 2.8/5 ratings respectively on Glassdoor.

Adam Keller agrees that Huntsville City Schools has a culture problem, calling the climate since 2011 (when Wardynski took office) “authoritarian” and “unsupportive.” Pat Miller added that “teachers don’t feel supported or trusted.” Keller has also said that teachers will not speak out against perceived unfairness because, in his words, “teachers live in fear of retribution.”

When this article, originally written for the Huntsville High School newspaper, The Red and Blue, came up for printing, was pulled out of fear of possible retribution towards those involved with the paper’s publication. Concerns first arose after several teachers in the Huntsville High School English Department proofread the article and expressed worries about its reception among administrators. Regardless of whether any action would have been taken, these fears lead to the article’s removal. It is important to note that this article was written independently, and that any faculty at Huntsville High School are not responsible for its content.

In an incident in April 2012, Pam Hill, then a teacher at Hampton Cove Elementary School, addressed the board in the citizen comments portion of the meeting regarding the dramatic departure of her principal; in response, Dr. Casey Wardynski said, ” Principal McGhee was relieved for a whole host of reasons that where upheld in court. That had to do with poor leadership, ethical questions. And so we will relieve such leaders, we will relieve such teachers, and so I would caution you when talking to your employers to speak to them as your employers. The Board is your employer.” This was interpreted as a threat by some, including a local blogger and ardent opponent of the Superintendent, Russell Winn, who cited the incident as an example of “intimidat[ing] teachers into silence.” Dr. Wardynski did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Several new district policies, like the required posting of “I can” statements, which phrase lesson objectives as statements starting with the words “I can,” and focus walls, where one wall of a classroom is painted a different color to attract students’ attention to the front of the class, have been met with responses from students and teachers ranging from lukewarm to mocking. When asked about the focus walls, Sophomore William Booth said, “It doesn’t really change the room that much for me,” and he “barely even looks at ‘I can’ statements,” a sentiment we found in most of the students we surveyed.

English teacher Julie Williams was supportive of I can statements, saying, “It may help the teacher more than it helps the kids.” Other teachers have complained about how they will be negatively evaluated if their “I can” statements are not posted. Miller said, “They are trying to make teacher evaluations as simple as checking off boxes.”

Williams said of focus walls: “I’m sure there’s some study that suggests kids are going to perform better.” When asked if she thought the district would have received less criticism if they would have provided this study along with the new painting plan, Williams replied, “I don’t think they care much about criticism,” adding, “I don’t think they have to justify why they’re painting.”

Keller was critical of this approach, and said, “They have to sell these policies to the teachers.” The Huntsville Chapter of the AEA says that a lack of communication between central office and teachers leads to a lack of understanding on both sides, whether on something as small as focus walls or as big as payroll. Aaron King, principal of Huntsville High, said, “Communication in any relationship, whether personal or in a school system, is the key to success.”

Discipline Policy

On April 21, 2015, the Judge Madeline Haikala handed down a consent order in the long-running Huntsville City Schools desegregation case, outlining a series of steps the school system would be required to take in order to reach unitary status, a legal state that means a school system has removed segregation to the greatest possible extent and can therefore operate with less federal scrutiny. Section VII of the consent order, which is concerned with student discipline, has led to changes in the Huntsville City Schools Code of Conduct that has created confusion and behavioral problems for teachers.

The consent order requires the district to “review class two and three offenses and reclassify offenses as lower level offenses, where possible, and/or eliminate the use of out-of-school suspension for these offenses,” and, by November 15 of every school year, report to the court “the total number and percentage of students receiving a disciplinary referral, disaggregated by race, in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, expulsion, school referrals to law enforcement and alternative school placement.” However, some feel that Huntsville City Schools has been overzealous in meeting this requirement, leading to chaos in classrooms.

Between the 2014-15 school year and the 2015-16 school year, there have been major changes in the level of punishments of several common student offenses. Tardiness used to be a class one offense; now students must report late to class in “weekly incidents during a two month period of reporting” to be in violation of the code, according to the Code of Student Conduct found on the district website. Similarly, classroom disruptions now must take place over a period of two months to be an offense. Trespassing, cheating, and brief fights have also been lowered to class one offenses. AEA chapter president Pat Miller also cited that non-tenured teachers will be hurt in their evaluations for writing students up; however, the district claims this is not true. Gregory Hicks, Director of Behavioral Learning for Huntsville City Schools, did not comment on the discipline policy, although in faculty meetings he has said this policy is a work in progress according to teachers who were present.

The discipline section of the consent order came as a result of differences in punishments of students by race, which, according to the teachers we interviewed, is a prominent issue. “There really was a disparity in discipline for black students,” said Keller of the AEA, “and none of the teachers want to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.” However, he does not think Huntsville City Schools adequately addressed the issue. “[The district], instead of actually solving the problems, just took the most common offenses and made them unpunishable. This has led to chaos in classrooms,” said Keller.

Aaron King has taken note of these concerns, inviting Hicks to speak to Huntsville High teachers in a faculty meeting. In any case, according to Miller, the result of the new policy leads at best to teachers being “afraid to write anyone up,” and at worst to “dangerous classroom behavior.”

No Raise in Years

According to a report from the Alabama Education Connection, since 2007, teachers in Huntsville City Schools have not had a Cost of Living Adjustment. That, combined with increases in employee insurance and retirement contributions, means teachers are being paid less in real dollars today than they were ten years ago. Meanwhile, administrators have received a 4.6% raise each year; this pay raise is a Huntsville City Schools policy, not a state one. HCS pays its teachers a starting salary at the state minimum: $36,867 per year, less than Madison City or Madison County Schools, despite the district’s $30 million surplus and multiple six-figure administrative salaries.

However, Adam Keller denies that the salary stagnation is the reason teachers are leaving. In the words of Aaron King: “No one goes into education for the money.” Keller said, “A raise would be nice, but it won’t solve our morale issues.” Pat Miller cited salaries as a sign of a lack of appreciation, and said, “Pay shows that teachers are not a priority.”

Common Core, Testing, and District Pacing Guides

In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law. It was the first attempt by the federal government to hold schools accountable for their quality of teaching, and started as a bipartisan agreement to make our school system competitive internationally. Quickly, the agreement fell apart; students were assessed yearly, and if the student body did not show “adequate yearly progress,” schools would face sanctions. By 2014, 100 percent of students were to be proficient in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math, a goal that was seen as increasingly impossible as the year approached.

Common Core was an answer to what many on both sides of the aisle saw as federal overreach; if No Child Left Behind was characterized by tough love and force, Common Core is characterized by its intended flexibility and voluntary nature. Unlike No Child Left Behind and its weaker successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (signed into law in December 2015), Common Core is voluntary and state-driven; Alabama adopted the standards in 2010.

Contrary to popular belief, Common Core does not set forth any specific curriculum; instead, it provides a series of benchmarks that every student should understand, and sought to replace the state-specific No Child Left Behind tests with national tests that measured critical thinking instead of rote learning. This, combined with the relatively lax nature of the Every Student Succeeds Act, was intended to relieve the pressure of No Child Left Behind and put education back in state control, while still keeping standards high.

However, the voluntary nature of Common Core was undermined to a certain degree by Race to the Top. The Obama administration program gave states a chance to compete for $4.35 billion in federal money, earmarked for those that adopted national standards, with extra cash given to states that tracked student development from early education to high school graduation. This program, which started in the heat of the Great Recession, has been criticized for forcing school to adopt standards quickly in hopes of alleviating their cash-strapped budgets.

As a result of the Obama administration’s support, the influence of billionaire education activists like Bill and Melinda Gates and George Soros, and the soaring profits of testing and education companies like Pearson, Common Core has received a huge backlash from conservatives and liberals alike. The standards have made deficiencies in tougher-to-measure areas like critical thinking clear, exposing lacking elements in schools that had passed muster in the No Child Left Behind era (schools like Huntsville High School). Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outraged many with his comments that “some of the pushback” from Common Core is coming from “white suburban moms” who realize “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought [it was], and that’s pretty scary.”

While Common Core and national standards for education will likely remain a topic of debate for years, the results of its implementation are clear: Teachers now have much less flexibility in their classes. In addition to adopting the Common Core standards mandated by the state, Huntsville City Schools has adopted ACT’s QualityCore system. According to ACT’s website, QualityCore “aligns well” with Common Core standards, while providing “greater level of detail than the ACT College and Career Readiness Standards” for individual courses. However, because QualityCore is designed to align with both ACT guidelines and national standards, it is a particularly rigorous program.

The result of adopting QualityCore, in addition to the already-difficult Common Core, is a strict pacing guide for the district; teachers are given a set number of days to meet objectives for different content areas. This has triggered complaints from many teachers. Adam Keller of the AEA said that quarterly district benchmark testing, which measures mastery of QualityCore and Common Core objectives that should have been learned if the pacing guide was followed, has led to a loss of classroom control: “Licensed professionals lose their autonomy as a result [of testing].” Pat Miller added, “Bottom line: teachers have less control over their work today than ever before.”

With the fast implementation of these lofty standards, our school system had to make a decision: either more kids will fail and repeat grades, or kids will be shuffled through without actually meeting standards. Our system, like many across the country, appears to have chosen the latter. Despite standards being higher than ever, so are high school graduation rates. Some of this increase in graduation rates has come as a result of low teen pregnancies, as well as groups that identify and help failing or chronically absent students. However, critics argue that many students are still unprepared for many jobs that formerly could be had from just a high school diploma, such as manufacturing. In order to graduate, students used to be required to pass the Alabama High School Graduation exam; however, since the class of 2014, this is no longer required.

As a part of the consent order, Huntsville City Schools implemented a new district-wide grading policy. Student grades are all weighted as sixty percent from tests, thirty percent from quizzes and in-class work, and ten percent from homework, regardless of the course. In addition, students no longer receive zeros for work not turned in – they receive a one. Students all have an opportunity to make up failed tests for a grade up to a seventy; late work must be taken as well, with points taken off each day the work is late. This policy has received criticism, particularly from teachers in demanding courses.

After a student in her Algebra II class did not understand what a cube root was, Krystle Johnson, a math teacher and basketball coach, said, “I’m not sure how some of these kids made it to me. They’re missing something in middle school.” Johnson cited the ability of all students to retake failed tests for a grade up to a seventy as a possible reason for unmerited promotion to her level of math. A teacher who wished to remain anonymous added that “teachers at Huntsville City Schools are afraid to fail students.” A Huntsville City Schools teacher on the online workplace review site Glassdoor.com said that the new district-wide grading policy “enables apathy and increases work for teachers,” because teachers have to stay after school and sometimes write new questions to allow students to retake failed tests.

Because there is so much material to cover, teachers feel it is impossible to answer questions students ask outside the scope of the class, even though those questions are sometimes necessary for understanding the present material. One teacher mentioned that they “feel like [they] have to meet the benchmark timing, even though the kids are behind.” The grading policy was mentioned as a part of this problem; a different teacher reviewer on Glassdoor mentioned that there was “too much pressure on teachers to make student grades fit what is expected by supervision, regardless of how students behave in a class, or how students actually prepared and performed in some classes.”

Controversial State Legislature

For the Alabama legislative session starting February 2, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh proposed his controversial RAISE Act bill, which dramatically alters the tenure system in Alabama. According to an initial draft, starting in 2017, new teacher hires will have two choices: a non-tenured performance based career track with higher pay, but low security; and a traditional tenure track, where teachers will be paid less. The bill also increases the years a teacher must work to get tenure from three to five years; support staff are no longer eligible for tenure, nor are teachers that score too low on the new teacher evaluation system proposed by the bill. Existing tenure can also be revoked if a teacher scores poorly on two consecutive performance ratings. Cost of Living adjustments for tenure-track teachers are capped at five percent per year. For principals and assistant principals, evaluations are largely based on “evidence of growth in student achievement;” starting in 2022, forty-five percent of their evaluations will be based on these measures of student growth.

A new draft of this bill reportedly eliminates the tenure track for teachers hired after 2017.

Cliff Pate, an AP Statistics teacher at Huntsville High, has criticized the bill’s practicality; he said, “Whenever you tie pay to test scores, you get people who are teaching to the test, which is always bad news when you want to get kids to learn for the love of learning.” Pate thinks a lot of teachers will take the performance track at first, should there be a choice, because “it’s been so long since we’ve had raises…they’ll see that as their only path towards making more money.” However, he says the performance track won’t last, because, in his words, “Teachers just want some level of respect. We don’t want to be rich or famous or anything.”

In a letter published on AL.com, a group of teachers also raised the point that classes without testing, such as art and music, will be difficult to evaluate on the performance track proposed by Marsh.

A spokesperson for Marsh could not be reached for comment. The bill has not yet been passed, but past education bills from Marsh, including a charter school bill, have been made into law.

The Future of Public Education in Huntsville

Teachers are worried about the future, which has contributed to low morale in systems across the nation. New national reforms, paired with controversial measures in performance pay and charter schools, as well as a case currently being heard in the Supreme Court about union fees, all have placed education in an uncertain place. Test scores and increased accountability have also dramatically changed the tone of education nationwide. Principal Aaron King said, “With No Child Left Behind, we went from a culture of trust to a culture of test scores.” This uncertainty and changing standards has frustrated AEA representative Adam Keller to the point where he said, “Public education is under attack in this country.” While this may be an overstatement, there is certainly some truth in it; in the words of King: “Education is in a state of revolution right now.”

However, prominent national issues do not hide the fact that Huntsville City Schools is partially to blame for teachers in the district leaving. A sense of disrespect felt by teachers is leading to real issues in morale, something noticed by students who are seeing their teachers leave. King said, “We have a shortage of teachers with five to ten years of experience, and we need that group to be a successful school.”

 

A detailed look at the Huntsville City Schools desegregation case

Over fifty-one years ago, Huntsville City Schools (HCS) became the first school system in Alabama to begin the process of integration. On September 9, 1963, Sonnie Hereford IV walked into his first grade class at the previously all-white Fifth Avenue Elementary, which used to stand on Governors. Half a century later, Mr. Hereford’s lawsuit – the lawsuit that allowed him to go to school – is still working its way through the courts. To this day, HCS has not achieved unitary status (unitary status means that a school system is has removed segregation to the greatest possible extent, and can operate with less federal scrutiny).

In a strongly-worded 107-page opinion, US District Court Judge Madeline Haikala accused HCS of keeping improper records in violation of past court orders, “frequently offer[ing] incomplete answers” to questions asked by the court, giving testimony inconsistent with official data and the law, and claiming to have achieved partial unitary status without legal permission. She rejected several plans for redistricting Huntsville City Schools, instead appointing a mediator, Judge John Ott, to help Huntsville to move towards unitary status.

Wardinski’s Plan for Integration

Before Casey Wardynski became the Superintendent, there were clear differences between predominantly black and white schools in Huntsville. In 2011, the year Dr. Wardynski was hired, only three AP classes were offered at Butler High School, where seventy percent of students are black. These advanced classes were taken by a total of twenty-seven students, and no one passed the end-of-year AP exams. According to statistics provided by Huntsville City Schools, only twenty percent of students at Butler were reading at grade level; the school had a dismal thirty-one percent graduation rate. In an official court transcript from the end of the 2014 school year, Wardynski* was recorded as saying “my feeling about Butler was it was barely a school.” Johnson High School, another predominantly black school, had similar issues, with only a slightly more than twenty percent of students reading at or above grade level.

In an attempt to remedy this situation, Wardynski and Edith Pickens, the director of Secondary Programs for Huntsville City Schools, developed a comprehensive Student Assignment Plan, which was designed in part, according Ms. Pickens’ testimony recorded in an official court document, to ensure “equitable access for all students to high school Honors, AP, and IB courses.” This program has enjoyed modest success, with Butler’s AP enrollment rising to 125 students in the six classes offered as of the 2013-2014 school year.

However, Butler still appears to have problems. Several parent complaints filed with the court revealed that some students did not receive a permanent math teacher or a grade for the first nine weeks of classes in 2013.

In contrast to Butler, in the 2013-2014 school year Grissom High School offered twenty-two AP classes and Huntsville High offered fourteen. Grissom and Huntsville students took over 2,200 AP exams in 2013 alone. Eighty-four percent and eighty-eight percent of students at Huntsville and Grissom, respectively, read at or above grade level. Both schools are predominantly white.

However, changing curriculum is not enough for a school system to achieve unitary status. To do so, Huntsville needs to not only make sure that each of its schools reasonably reflect the forty percent black student population enrolled throughout the city, but that every student in every school has similar opportunities: for instance, similar AP opportunities at schools with similar population size. The Student Assignment Plan was designed not only to help provide equitable access to curriculum, but also to rezone schools in a more ethnically diverse pattern.

In early 2012, shortly after his hiring, Wardynski and the school board decided to retain the educational advisement firm DeJong-Richter to begin the process of rezoning. Part of this process, according to Wardynski, was “a fairly rigorous construction campaign” to build new schools. The school board paid $154,000 to the firm (a fraction of Huntsville City School’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget of $202 million), partially to ensure that there would be as much racial diversity as possible zoned into each school. However, no records were kept of these meetings.

The Lawsuit

In 2013 the school board filed its new rezoning plans. Under these plans, Butler, McDonnell Elementary, Ed White Middle, and Davis Hills Middle would close, all of which are predominantly black. Huntsville City Schools held six town hall meetings to discuss the enormous impact of the Student Assignment Plan. After these meetings, no edits were made to the plan. The plan would later be called “unusual” because it affects seventy-five percent of the current school zones, which, according to Judge Haikala’s memorandum opinion, had “the potential to be disruptive.”

Still, this wasn’t enough. The Department of Justice (DOJ) claimed that Huntsville’s zoning plan violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which means that the zoning plan did not give the almost 24,000 students in Huntsville City equal access to a quality education. The DOJ proposed an alternate plan on December 31, 2013, which turned several elementary schools, including Jones Valley and Blossomwood, into Pre-K to sixth grade schools, and would feed more schools into Huntsville High. This plan met fierce resistance from the Superintendent, and was never proposed to parents or students enrolled in Huntsville City Schools.

The case was argued at the end of the 2013-2014 school year before Haikala. HCS argued that since they couldn’t control where people live, they could not be responsible for the way the district reflected the racial differences between neighborhoods. The DOJ claimed that the school district did not act in good faith to try to achieve unitary status, including separating adjacent majority-black and majority-white neighborhoods into different schools. In her official memorandum opinion, Haikala rejected both the United States’ and Huntsville City Schools’ redistricting plans, saying that neither of them adequately addressed the problems in our schools. Instead, she appointed a mediator to help reach an agreement between the DOJ and HCS that is in the best interests of all students in the entire city of Huntsville.

Although the Court ruling initially condemned many of Huntsville’s actions, it ended on a hopeful note. Haikala praises Huntsville’s teachers, saying that they “have demonstrated unbounded enthusiasm for their work and sincere dedication to their students, their schools, and the district,” and even states that Huntsville has the potential to be the best school district in the United States. Huntsville can do great things, but we still have a long way to go.

*Superintendent Wardysnki could not be reached for comment for this article.

Interview with Dale Jackson on social media surveillance

After publishing an AL.com editorial criticizing Huntsville City Schools’ surveillance of students’ social media, Dale Jackson of WVNN asked me to come in and debate my points on air. You can read my original editorial here.

I edited this recording to show only my interview. The audio of more of Mr. Jackson’s show is available at www.theattackmachine.com.

Huntsville City Schools’ monitoring of social media

(This article was originally published on AL.com)

What should the role of a school system be in the digital age? Dr. Wardynski said in another article on AL.com that “the first duty of the Superintendent” is to “ensure student safety” both from threats of violence and from online intimidation, like cyberbullying. After the tragedy at Columbine and the all-too-common suicides of teenagers bullied online, schools can and should work to protect students from these threats.

However, spying on students’ social media and private lives is not the best way to do this: after all, the persona that anyone presents online is different from the person they are inside. Schools should take a stronger approach in looking after the psychological well-being of students to catch depression and other problems before they burst into tragedy. By reducing class sizes and increasing actual contact with caring teachers who are trained and paid to look for problems in students, more people will voluntarily come forward and ask for help before they do something they cannot undo.

Monitoring social media addresses all the right problems in all the wrong ways. By the time a student is bringing a gun to school or considering suicide, there will have been dozens of points where an adult could have given that student a kind word, referred them to receive extra help, and taken action to stop harassment or put the student in a better home.

Expelling the students that need help the most only helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty that likely put students in a toxic environment in the first place. In the landmark 1954 case Brown v Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that it “is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

The same minority students that are protected by that ruling are the ones that may be disproportionately targeted by this surveillance. The stain of expulsion on a student’s permanent record can throw that student off the difficult and delicate track towards success, already weighted against minority students.

Teenagers are not hard to understand. They are under heavy pressures to succeed in an uncertain and changing world, and this can be stressful, even when students don’t admit it. No matter how many benchmarks students pass or metrics they measure well in, nothing changes the fact that they are human and often fail and get sad or lonely.

We don’t need more one-off assemblies where random presenters come in from out of town to preach to us about the dangers of drugs and drinking and depression. We need better relationships between students and faculty, and a better support network for our teachers. One of my teachers told me that “it’s physically and mentally and emotionally exhausting…loving and caring about your futures.” Administrators should be focusing on supporting and training teachers, not obsessing over numbers. We as a nation need to be willing to pay teachers a wage that not only compensates them for the stress they go through, but also a wage that incentivizes talented young people to go into education.

To believe that the answer to the problems facing our schools will be as easy as monitoring social media belittles teenage students and treats the symptoms of our problems rather than the cause. We as Americans need to get the guts to fix our problems, not expel them or throw them in jail.